Wednesday, February 29, 2012

people i want to know

I was walking behind a man heading up Bush street. In this case, heading up literally; I live in Nob Hill and my walk home is a climb of several hundred feet over a handful of blocks. As we ascended, me about three or four paces behind him, I realized that he reminded me of a friend from law school whom I had known but never been particularly close with.

The way we walked up the street together was anthropologically interesting. Although I walked behind him, occasionally we would draw up next to each other before a crosswalk. For those of you not familiar with San Francisco, this is a city where people tend to wait at crosswalks. Although the adopted New Yorker in me protests, I tend to follow the rules myself, if only because safety in numbers doesn't apply when you are the only one in the street. So, I stopped beside the familiar but unfamiliar man and waited for the walk light to turn green so he could pull ahead of me again.

Walking down -or up- the sidewalk is a funny thing when you put two people together, moving at approximately the same speeds, and going in the same direction. Studies show that social interaction can exercise your brain power as well as exercise or hobbies. For me, when I meet another person on the sidewalk, I might as well be running a marathon while studying Japanese. It's particularly exhausting in the morning, when every person I meet on the sidewalk is a potential ally, competitor, [temporary] crush, person of interest or serial killer. It's all I can do to pretend to ignore everyone who passes me by.

Standing next to someone going the same direction as you and trying to decide who goes first is its own kind of mind game. Don't act like you don't think about it... you are walking somewhere and some person in similar physical health and stature comes up alongside you. The sidewalk might be big enough for two people literally, but unless you are running a three-legged race most people wouldn't last more than a moment or two walking straight alongside a total stranger in public.

It's hard to say what happens in those few moments when both people realize they are on a similar trajectory at a shared velocity. Is it a power struggle? A flirtation? Do we size each other up sexually, or try to discern status based on dress, or the way we carry ourselves? Am I over-thinking things?

In this case, with the man on the sidewalk who reminded me of the person I knew in law school, but never got to know as well as I wanted, I hung back for a few seconds as we started walking across the street, and took up the rear. As we moved forward down the street, moving in the same direction, at the same speed, but steps apart, I found myself thinking about my ex-classmate, and wishing that I had made more of an effort to get to know him. Not that this prompted me to catch up and extend a hand to my companion - let's face it, that would have been weird. But it did make me think about what kind of friendship might have been formed, had we been moving at less of a parallel and more of a concave route, a collision course toward forced recognition of each other and our place on the universal sidewalk.